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Perhaps no other document in modern African American history stimulated more public debate about intimate matters than what is commonly referred to as the Moynihan Report. Leaked to the press in 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan's The Negro Family: The Case For National Action remains accessible through the comprehensive compilation published two years later, The Moynihan Report and the Politics of Controversy, which reprinted it and collected dozens of commentaries on Moynihan's thesis about the damaged nature of the African American family structure. His phrasing was unforgettable and its implications equally disturbing: "A fundamental fact of American Negro American family life is the often reversed roles of husband and wife," wrote Moynihan. The "deterioration of the fabric of Negro society" was at heart the failure of the black family—"it is the fundamental source of the weakness of the Negro community at the present time." According to Moynihan, this little understood problem had worsened since World War II, and the "tangle of pathology is tightening." The white family was stable, and the black family was not; in urban centers it was "approaching complete breakdown." As is often noted, the fallout from the report divided conservatives from liberals, whites from blacks, and feminists from traditionalists, and, as well, transformed Moynihan and his times. The leading historical interpretations conceive of the controversy either as a case of victimization by political correctness, in which a liberal intellectual in search of the truth became a scapegoat for a frank, difficult analysis of African American culture and behavior, or as a case of racial bias [End Page 53] and misogyny, in which a white male ethnocentric perspective misrecognized an alternative, and viable, family structure.1

In contrast, this article offers a critical perspective on these and other historical questions by queering the Moynihan controversy.2 Following Eileen Boris's call for the diversification of policy history to include multiple categories of analysis and difference, I will examine the construction of the report and the ensuing controversy as an episode in the history of sexuality, a neglected line of inquiry. Although the historian Margot Canaday has charted state discourse about and the regulation of homosexuality, significant questions about the intersection of categories of difference are submerged in the literature. An exception to the invisibility of race in both policy and sexuality studies is the work of Cathy Cohen, who has examined the dynamics of homophobia in black communities, attributing its function to the politics of respectability. She argued that "visible/public black homosexuality is understood to threaten that 'cultural capital' acquired by assimilation and protest," and she adds that an essentialist construction of racial identity, or the idea that all members share an outlook and prioritize race above other aspects of difference, inhibits the extent to which gays and lesbian come out.3 My analysis locates the dynamics of homophobia in lateral relations between groups, and in terms of the exercise of government and academic forms of power.

Drawing on the Daniel P. Moynihan Papers at the Library of Congress, published social science, popular periodicals and press, my interpretation of the report shifts attention away from its relatively minor discussion of motherhood (which eventually came to occupy public debate) and toward Moynihan's more important, and in some ways fascinating, discussion of black masculinity, which is too often forgotten. I trace the forgetting of Moynihan's masculinity thesis to the disavowal or rejection of the innuendo of homosexuality in his policy language, and present research on the response that shows how homosexuality circled the controversy and how racially inflected homophobia impacted policy matters. Moynihan's assignment to research the next stage of the federal response to the civil rights movement was a matter of major political importance; his portrayal of the black family stimulated changes in policy (the White House diminished the discussion of the black family at its conference). But his policy recommendations and his career suffered from the public fallout about his theory of black pathology.4 This article examines the making of policy and its effects from the usual perspective of the state and government [End Page 54...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1528-4190
Print ISSN
0898-0306
Pages
pp. 53-73
Launched on MUSE
2012-02-18
Open Access
N

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